10:15 AM

CAP Member's Shipborne Rolling Vertical Landing Makes Aviation History

By Vicky Travis
Consulting Writer

CAP Maryland Wing 2nd Lt. Peter Wilson recently made history as the first pilot to make a shipborne rolling vertical landing, known as a SRVL in naval aviation circles.

Wilson’s aircraft for the SRVL was a Lockheed Martin F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, a stealth multirole jet that he vertically landed on the deck of the new British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. His feat takes vertical landings to a new level and allows the F-35 to land with 2,000 more pounds of weapons and fuel than is possible in a typical vertical landing. That means less waste and, therefore, money saved on the expensive ordnance.

In the late 1990s, the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence was looking for a plane that would do more and wanted to figure out a way to bring expensive heavy weapons back to the ship.

“The idea for this type of landing came about, and we wanted to give it a go,” said Wilson, a second lieutenant in CAP’s St. Mary’s Composite Squadron. “That actual landing was a culmination of almost two decades of work.”

Wilson works for BAE Systems, a British company focused on international technology defense, aerospace and security.

During a vertical landing, an aircraft hovers next to a ship, moves sideways and gently lowers down. During an SRVL, an aircraft approaches a carrier ship from behind at low speed, lands and slows quickly using its own brakes. Because the aircraft keeps moving through the air, lift from the wings allows it to carry more weight.

“Around a decade ago, some doubted it could happen,” Wilson said of the SRVL. “Even today there are skeptics.”

Some wonder how this will become routine for pilots, he said, but he gives an example.

The Harrier aircraft was the first to land vertically in the 1960s. “It was very much a showpiece at the time, and there was nothing common about a vertical landing, but it became the normal thing,” said Wilson, who has been flying since he was 16. Since then, the vertical landing has become common and the Harrier’s uses have evolved. “Even today, it’s an incredible, phenomenal airplane.”

And now, the F-35, which has only been around for a decade, has become the showpiece to test the SRVL. Wilson expects great things of this technology and aircraft.

“People will find new things this aircraft can do that we haven’t imagined yet,” he said.

Problem solvers

For 20 years, his day job, as an experimental test pilot with BAE Systems, has focused on this feat, which came to fruition on Oct. 14 when he made the landing on the HMS Queen Elizabeth. Throughout those years, which included a move in 2006 to the United States with his wife and two boys, Wilson has worked on solving the technical, how-to questions with like-minded pilots and engineers.

He and the team asked question after question. How do we do a running landing without a hook to catch a cable and stop the aircraft? We’ll have to use our own brakes, so how much speed can we get rid of and how can we do that safely? The ship is moving and the plane is moving, so how do we make this work repeatedly?

And while it’s very common to use lights to guide in an aircraft, the team developed a software and sensor-controlled SRVL array that uses 21 pairs of lights embedded in the ship’s runway centerline for this landing. A pilot sees red lights marking the beginning and end of the touchdown zone and only one pair of white “aim lights” that show the pilot where to land. As a ship heaves and pitches, different aim lights are illuminated by the software.

In the early 2000s, the team figured the lights out using a simulator. In 2007-08, they took it to sea. “We had to look at it in the real world so we took a mock-up of 21 pairs of lights and drove them with software,” he said.

The team planned for any number of failures that can happen, such as a burst tire that makes the landing really hard to control, brake failure, hydraulic failure, engine issues and hundreds of other things.

In 2006, Wilson and his family moved from Britain to Texas near Lockheed Martin. Later, they moved to Maryland near the Naval Air Station known as Pax River. BAE Systems chose to do the simulator work in the United Kingdom, so Wilson traveled quite a bit.

“In 2012 alone I went back to the U.K. 12 times,” he said.

He and his teenage sons joined the St. Mary’s Composite Squadron in 2017. He hopes to get more involved with CAP in the future when his work schedule allows. “It’s a great way to give back to society,” he said.

Next steps

Four test pilots included Wilson and a Marine Corps pilot. After Wilson’s successful landing, another test pilot also completed the landing.

The carrier will set sail again soon for three weeks at sea, during which time all four pilots will do a total of 15 to 20 SRVLs and compare notes.

Then, in about a year, as more pilots train on the SRVL technique, there will be another trial period and the British government may start using the landing within 18 months or so.

At this point, the U.K. is the only customer. One of the test pilots is a Marine, leading the way for this technology to be considered in the U.S.